Naming Diseases

There are times when I envy fire PIOs (and trust me, it’s not often, as I’ve seen fire responses). The times that most easily come to mind are when naming a wildland fire. Where it starts, no matter how ridiculous the name of the place, is what it’s called. (Except for little fires, one of which was called Samantha, after one chief’s daughter.) Hurricanes and cyclones, while more rare than wildland fires, get very specific names. And just this year, the Weather Channel corporation started naming winter storms (and believe you me, I’ve got something to say about that).

Now contrast that with our friends in health. We’ve got this new bug popping around in the Middle East and a bit in the UK, and we don’t know what to call it. Most folks in the media are either calling it coronavirus or SARS-like. As you can see from the CDC link above, they’re calling it “novel coronavirus.” (Which, between you and me, isn’t very helpful, given that every new coronavirus out there–and there are tons–is novel.)

I recently asked the wonderful Helen Branswell of the Canadian Press what some of the scientists were calling it. Her response? The even more confusing hCoV-EMC or EMC2012.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had this problem either. A lifetime ago (when I was Jimmy Jazz) I wrote about this same exact problem with the H1N1 flu pandemic. You remember the disaster that name was: swine flu, swine-origin influenza A virus (S-OIV), H1N1 flu, novel H1N1 influenza A virus. And yet, even after all of those etymological gymnastics, the name wasn’t very descriptive. In fact, the chances that some other flu is out there that meets all of the descriptive criteria laid forth in every one of those names is actually pretty good.

And then, my reason for complaining. About a week ago, the WHO started tweeting to reporters and members of the public to dissuade folks from calling the new coronavirus that is currently in the news SARS-like or SARS-like. Mike Coston covered it exceptionally well.

And this is where I think (for the first time ever, probably) I disagree with Mike. The new term, nCoV, is only more precise and more descriptive than some term the media used. It is not precise or descriptive. And furthermore, the reason the media was using SARS-like in their reporting was because they needed some description that the public could understand and relate to. They were using plain language, as opposed to the gobbledygook that most of us in health (and the WHO is the worst offender) use all of the time.

Which leads me back to my original point. Our naming conventions (if one could so generously call them conventions), have been demonstrated to and continue to cause confusion. The National Hurricane Center got raked over the coals earlier this year for their linguistic contortions around Hurricane Sandy (which I’ve already talked about once) in an effort to adhere to the science of the storm and not the needs of the public. And that was after one single storm! Yet we in public health continue to confuse the issue and the public.

Do we start naming pandemics? Develop criteria for watches and warnings? Designate some central authority to start listing out each new Salmonella outbreak in an attempt to differentiate between the half dozen we see every year? Honestly, I don’t know, but I do know that our failure to act in the best interest of the public is shameful, and will–if it hasn’t already–cost lives.


Quick Lesson on Crisis Communications

I’m one of those strange people who like to go to media relations training sessions. I think there’s a non-zero chance I’ll be interviewed one day and I want to be ready to not make a fool of myself.

I’ve always thought that calculus was logical, and I’ve always encouraged others with a similar expectation (non-zero chance of standing in front of the media) to do the same. My rationale was always, it’s better to practice it now than to have to learn how to do it in front of a camera. But that hasn’t always pushed people to action, unfortunately.

Furthermore, it’s usually not the folks that I talk to that are the problem. They, for the most part, understand the need to do media training. They’re muckety-mucks and realize that they have a non-zero chance, too. No, the real problem is their front-line employees. Regular Joe’s and Joette’s that are, more often than not, the face of an organization. Call takers, service people, front desk staff, salespeople.

You might not know it, but they’ve got a non-zero chance of being in front of a camera, too. You see, they’re the ones that talk to the media before you do. They’re the ones that let the media in the door, the ones that act as gatekeepers. And, I know you’ll be surprised by this, but sometimes the media just sticks their camera in people’s faces and hits record. And it’s just as likely to happen to your front-line employees as it is to you.

From now, though, I have a new tactic. I’m just going to show the following video and say, “are you sure no one in your organization will react to a camera like this?”

Translation for Understanding

I work in public health which, as you’ve heard me complain, can be a bit dry.

We talk about very complicated subjects and the people who do most of our talking have numerous advanced degrees and understand those subjects at a very high level. The problem with this is that the people that need the information generally don’t have the background or education to follow along with those conversations. So we have communicators to “bring down the reading level.” We are translators. We transform “public healthy language” into “plain language.” (This is one of my favorite things to do at my job. I make knowledge available to the masses. I educate, I inform, I empower.)

Traditionally this wasn’t much of a priority. An older gentleman in a white coat says something and the public had been trained to believe that information. In a world where information was scarce, it was easy to take information presented in some sort of official format and accept it as right, as gospel.

We don’t live in that world anymore though. Information is anything but scarce. We are buffeted by information from all sides of every discussion. Every arguer on every side has piles of supporting information, some well written, some poorly written, some debunked, some unproven, and only some correct. For folks who have trouble deciphering information, imagine trying to wade through mountains of arguments, all of it contradicting other arguments.

I see an opportunity. We can be that translator. We can reestablish ourselves as the place to turn when people need real unbiased information. I’m not the only one that thinks there’s a role for someone to take charge:

Even some of the most forward-thinking media folks are saying the same thing:

The journalist has not been replaced but displaced, moved higher up the editorial chain from the production of initial observations to a role that emphasizes verification and interpretation.

Working between the crowd and the algorithm in the information ecosystem is where a journalist is able to have most effect, by serving as an investigator, a translator, a storyteller.

There are a number of things that need to happen for us to embrace this role, first of which is to accept the gospel of plain language. But we can do more. In this age of social media, it’s not enough to reactively talk like a normal person. This brings me to the money link: Sense About Science. SAS is a new tool intended to decipher, translate, demystify scientific information. But more than just scientific information, but also the scientific process that got us that information. What does peer review mean? Is a particular study valid? What does that mean for me?

Because really, isn’t that why we do what we do? Science for science’s sake is good, but science for the good of the public–the good of the person–is divine.

Crisis Communication Consultants

Recently, I had the great pleasure of attending a social media and crisis communication two-day workshop sponsored by our local Task Force, provided by the wonderful folks at the Media Survival Group. (Full disclosure: I love every single session of theirs that I attend; and I’m not even getting paid to say that!) Kerry and Karen were, as usual, terrific, but listening to Kelly Huston’s (Assistant Secretary at CalEMA for Crisis Communications and Media Relations and owner of the very useful ProCommunicator website) advice got me thinking about crisis communication consultants. His presentation (piped in live via Skype) gave tons of advice in easy-to-remember bites. There were the five P’s of why you should use social media, and then the ABC method of first steps in crisis communication response.

And even today, I remember both of those things. What a clever way to teach an idea that I’ve never used. And I think, damn Kelly, you’re good. It’s just as good as these other little jingles and mnemonics I’ve heard about crisis communications. Red, yellow and green; nobody cares what you know until they know you care; the list goes on.

And that got me thinking. Why does this industry have so many cute little ditties? I haven’t heard anything similar in public health, nor emergency management . Not accounting (other than PEMDAS) or police work or nursing. What’s so special about crisis communications? And then it hit me. People who do those other jobs do them every day. There is muscle memory built. No need for tricks, just do it like you did it yesterday. We don’t do that for crisis communications. We do our every day work, something explodes, and only then do we pull out all of the cute little jingles and mnemonics. But this is problematic, because if you break down what most crisis communicators teach, you can actually divide it into two very distinct areas of instruction. The first is the actual crisis communication advice. All of those neat little tricks. And empathy.

The second part, though, is one that we all seem to forget. It’s the one where they say that crisis communication cannot be a one-off thing. It cannot be something that we only do when the thing explodes and we pull the plan off the shelf and remember the mnemonics and express empathy and when it’s over we go back to our day-to-day jobs. It’s the one where they say that the things we do today will come back in spades in an emergency, so start today. Start messaging, start building dark sites, build your presence, teach your front-line staff, exercise them, exercise yourself, write templated messages, review your operations for pinch-points where crises are likely to happen, hold after-action meetings following others’ crises. Literally, make crisis communication part of your everyday job.

But we’re not so good at that. So we have mnemonics. We have tips and tricks and five steps to success! We have everything we need to make us feel comfortable forgetting about doing crisis communication until after the thing explodes. So I wonder, whose fault is that? Why can we not internalize the whole of what crisis communicators espouse? Is it because we’ve got these handy-dandy helpers, so we can “set it and forget it,” or did our consultants come up with these because they realized that nobody was really listening to them and they needed to deliver something of value.